Gavan Daws wears the obsessed, quixotic air of an Australian Peter O'Toole -- the O'Toole who, as Lawrence of Arabia, insists on raising moral questions government officials don't want to hear.

In Daws's case the questions concern the charnel house of Japanese atrocities during World War II and that country's insistent refusal to acknowledge them. The U.S. government doesn't want to hear about it. The Tokyo government very definitely doesn't.

Nonetheless, Daws's book "Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific" is a searing 462-page indictment of the particular and gratuitous savagery Japan inflicted on more than 140,000 Allied prisoners of war, who were starved to skeletons and worked to death as slaves if they weren't first hacked apart, burned alive or dissected alive as guinea pigs for experiments in germ warfare and medical sadism.

For Americans in the Pacific, he says, the chance of combat death was less than one in 20. For American POWs in Nazi prison camps it was one in 25. In Japanese prison camps, one in three died -- and died horribly.

"I don't know why the Japanese refuse to acknowledge these things the way the Germans have their atrocities," says Daws. "It's not like there's any question about their authenticity. After all, there are newsreel films showing Japanese soldiers tossing live Chinese babies onto their bayonets. Atrocities like the Rape of Nanking {where some 200,000 civilians were slaughtered} are a matter of indelible record."

But with the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima coming up this August, "obviously these true stories muddy Japan's increasingly sanitized image of itself as merely the innocent victim of the atom bomb. And that makes them very nervous."

Daws's book, published in November and now in its fourth printing, is intended to do more than merely muddy the waters. It paints a picture -- and displays photographs -- of skeletal prisoners racked with scurvy and dysentery, their genitalia swollen by beriberi to the size of grapefruit.

He describes the Bataan Death March, where the Japanese beheaded or bayoneted so many starving men that they left a dead body every 15 yards for a hundred miles.

He details the horror of building the 250-mile Burma-Siam railroad, where 12,500 POWs and as many as 200,000 Asian slave laborers were starved and worked to death, tortured by tropical skin ulcers they had to treat with gasoline and maggots to keep their flesh from rotting to the bone.

He tells the story of the "hellships" carrying prisoners from the Philippines to Japan, in which POWs were packed so tightly below decks they went mad with heat and thirst and killed one another even before they were sunk by mistake by U.S. submarines.

Bits and pieces of these stories have been told before, though almost never in official histories or as comprehensively as Daws has. The official U.S. Army history of Bataan, for example, contains not a word about what happened to the 12,000 American troops who surrendered in the war's early days, Daws says. "It's like Washington didn't want to think about it."

But his real purpose in writing the book, Daws says, "is for the prisoners themselves . . . particularly the American ones."

In a country that made celebrities out of Iranian hostages and POWs from Vietnam, the prisoners of the Japanese "were forgotten after World War II and never really acknowledged. . . . They've never been compensated with even token payments for the suffering they endured. Now they're suing the Japanese government for a token $20 a day for their captivity. But what they really want is for their stories to be heard.

"These men are all very old now. They're at the age where they very much want and need to make some sense out of their lives. Once we get past the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in September, World War II will be ancient history and nobody will care. It would be nice if there were some gesture before then from the Japanese or from their own government acknowledging the extraordinary price they paid. Then maybe they could write an end to it all and go to their reward in peace." Immediate History

Though he's written eight books, including "Shoal of Time," a best-selling history of Hawaii, and taught history in Australia or Hawaii most of his life, Daws insists he comes late to a full realization of what the war meant to those, military or civilian, suddenly brought under Japanese military rule.

The son of a high school teacher in the dusty crossroad towns of the Australian outback, he was "only 12 when World War II ended and didn't have a clue what it was all about. Oh, I knew you were supposed to hate the Japanese because they were the enemy, and I remember soldiers coming home on leave with yellow faces -- I guess from taking Atabrine for malaria. But I had no sense of the military history or progress of the war and none at all of the geography involved" in the Pacific.

Even after he took a history degree at the University of Melbourne, taught high school for several years in Australia and taught 15 years of "world civilization" at the University of Hawaii, World War II remained little more to him than what he found in textbooks.

Then one day about 10 years ago, after he'd returned to Australia to head historical research at Australian National University in Canberra, he found himself on a bar stool listening to the beery revelations of a former World War II POW who couldn't seem to stop talking. He thinks of the conversation as an epiphany.

"I suppose in a way it was because I've been rather fortunate in my life. The closest brush I've ever had with evil was being mugged once in Amsterdam. . . . I'd read the same Holocaust stories everyone has, but they were just things in books. The experience of meeting someone in the flesh who had actually been through that kind of horror and listening to him describe it turned me instantly into an oral historian. I never again want to write history from bits of paper alone."

In the course of 10 years of research, he says, he talked to hundreds of survivors of the scores of Japanese concentration camps that stretched from Java to Manchuria during World War II. Inevitably, he says, he found he needed some sort of introduction from another POW or friend "and plenty of time" to get past the barriers of memory and emotion. "There are some of the survivors who won't talk at all and some who won't talk of anything else. . . . I finally discovered the best way to get at it all was not to ask them any questions at first. I'd just turn on the tape recorder, ask their name and branch of service and then sit back and let them talk about anything they wanted for as long as they would. Often it was hours."

Much of the material he confirmed in the U.S. Archives where, he says, "there's no shortage of bits of paper. The testimony from the Japanese War Crimes Trials alone amounts to a linear mile of filing cabinets." Often, he says, after interviewing a 70-year-old veteran he would happen in the Archives upon the evidentiary statement the same man had given as a 20-year-old "in his own handwriting. And often he'd be talking about the same things."

But even without direct confirmation, he says, almost all the stories he heard "were undeniably true. They have to be. The men who tell them, in almost every case, are not storytellers' in the accepted sense. They don't organize them for effect or build to a punch line. They often ramble. But the clarity of detail, even after half a century, is overwhelming. The moral and physical challenges of surviving that nightmare have been the central factors of their lives. They tell it all from the gut." Sanitized, Victimized

Daws is well aware that his book may sound at first to some -- particularly in Japan -- like gratuitous Japan-bashing from a white Australian whose very ethnicity might make him suspect. He urges those people to open their minds.

"I'm a longtime member of Amnesty International. I live in Hawaii primarily because it's a place where many races live and work together in cooperation and affection. That's what gives me hope for the world.

"If I'm beating up on anything," he says, "it is the misuse of governmental power" and what it costs in human lives. "Every culture gives its people certain kinds of reasons to be evil. . . . War gives more permissions for evil than peace. . . . This book is about a time and place in history where the permissions to be evil were more open to the Japanese than usual."

What fascinates him also, Daws says, is that during the Russo-Japanese War at the beginning of the century, the Japanese committed no comparable atrocities against prisoners. And in 1920, when they entered Siberia with the United States to try to restore order after the Russian Revolution, they were actually commended by the International Red Cross for their humane treatment of prisoners. "They were trying to prove to the world then that they were a civilized nation. And their military caste was far smaller and governed by a purer cultural tradition."

During World War II, the military was vastly expanded, "resulting in a general coarsening of the officer caste, with crude peasants and opportunistic middle-class kids corrupting the long, honorable Japanese warrior tradition. And a kind of madness came over the nation. You had hundreds of thousands of people running wild in Southeast Asia who had never exercised authority at home and suddenly had unlimited power over captive populations. They were more or less thugs with swords and bayonets." And since commanding or guarding a prison camp was considered a less than honorable assignment by the Japanese, "the chances of getting an honorable Japanese handling Allied POWs, one who cared about justice and wouldn't countenance horrors in Japan's name, that chance was pretty small."

One might think the Japanese would want to learn from such catastrophic aberrations, Daws says, because "even if they've forgotten the past, the past is concreted in everything they do, just as it is with all of us."

But it has been official policy for years in Japan "to sanitize World War II," and most of the population "doesn't have a clue about what really happened. And they don't want to find out. For example, I live in Honolulu and go out from time to time to the Pearl Harbor Memorial." Next to Americans, the dominant ethnic group visiting the memorial, "are Japanese, 90 percent of them postwar generation, young honeymooners and the like. One of the many things these young Japanese know' with absolute certainty is that Japan declared war on the United States before launching the attack" that dragged the United States into World War II. The fact that the rest of the world has incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, he says, means nothing to them.

Unfortunately, Daws says, Japan's determination to see its role in the war only as a victim of the atomic bomb has been encouraged in recent years by "self-flagellating white liberals in the West (and normally I'm one of those myself) who refuse to hold them to the same standard of behavior they use for the Germans. Because the Japanese are people of color. And I find that racist and patronizing at its worst." Eastern Fronts

From a global cultural perspective, Daws says, Japan's refusal to acknowledge its real role in World War II is less surprising than it may appear in the West. A few years ago, he says, he served as a member of a United Nations Commission on the Scientific and Cultural History of Humankind "trying to make some overall sense of civilization and get it between book covers."

It was a well-intentioned project, he says, on which he enjoyed working "with black Africans, East Indians, Arabs, Chinese, Europeans -- every sort of historian you can think of. But nothing ever came of it because there was no agreement. Western scholars were the only ones who would admit that their people had ever done anything wrong. Everybody else insisted they'd been a blameless victim throughout history, just like the Japanese."

Nevertheless, Daws says, "it seems to me that in the end Japan doesn't have a lot of choice but to confront" the extraordinary viciousness of its role in the Pacific war. A small but slowly growing number of Japanese historians have been fighting the systematic suppression of history in recent years, insisting the country come honestly to terms with its treatment of captive nations during the war. "They are ostracized, they get death threats, but they don't give up," Daws says.

Their efforts have produced enough of a change, he says, that an exhibit is now traveling around Japan detailing the work of Unit 731, a World War II camp in Manchuria "where Japanese scientists were leading the world in research into germ warfare," with plans to inject anthrax, cholera and bubonic plague into the United States. "That exhibit would have been unthinkable a few years ago."

The treatment of Allied prisoners of war, he says, like Japan's other atrocities of World War II, is something Japan inevitably must see requires sincere acknowledgment and apologies. "Right now Japan is really hated in much of Asia and still resented to a lesser extent in much of the West. And, though they don't want to admit it, this is the real reason . . .

"I believe with judicious pressure -- good, measured, morally sound pressure from Western nations -- Japan can bite the bullet on this issue and start looking honestly at its past. Until it does, no one, not even the Japanese, can be certain it won't happen again." CAPTION: After learning how Japan's prisoners were treated, Daws wanted to bring them some recognition. "Then maybe they could ... go to their reward in peace." CAPTION: Photographs of an Allied prisoner, above, an execution, right, and the Bataan Death March are among the evidence compiled by Gavan Daws of Japanese atrocities in World War II. To acknowledge such crimes, Daws says, would "muddy Japan's ... image of itself as merely the innocent victim of the atom bomb."